In Praise of Church Nuts
Terry Williams likes to say that when he was a national sales manager for Jimbo's Jumbos, peanuts put diapers on his children. Years later, those peanuts helped pay for his education at Duke University Divinity School.
Call it a coincidence, provenance, or divine intervention: Williams now oversees an entirely different kind of peanut hustle. He is the pastor at Englewood United Methodist Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. That's holy ground among snack cognoscenti for fried peanuts, a regional delicacy of Eastern North Carolina — a region known best for whole hog barbecue with vinegar sauce found in the counties east of Raleigh almost to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Nuts and Bolts of a North Carolina Tradition
"I wonder what Dr. George Washington Carver would say if he saw the impact of peanuts here," Williams says, citing the godfather of the peanut, who developed more than 300 uses for the legume, among his other work in nutrition and on the environment. "We're able to take the proceeds for what we do and make a difference. That money is planted right here back into the ground of Nash County."
Church history credits Dr. Boone Grant with starting the Englewood United Methodist peanut sales in 1955, when he and his children began frying peanuts at home to raise money to build the church. A fundraising tradition took root and evolved into an operation involving multiple "cook teams" who fry and pack enough peanuts to gross about $100,000 in annual sales, pre-COVID-19. Proceeds go to local organizations like the food bank and Salvation Army, and church elders have shared the gospel of their recipe with other congregations, including the Peanut Crew at First United Methodist Church in Mount Olive, North Carolina, who have been frying peanuts since 1965.
Fried peanuts are an elemental, crunchy, and salty snack without equal. The best ones start with good local raw product, specifically the Virginia-variety of peanuts that grow low to the ground in the sandy, well-drained soil of North Carolina's coastal plain. While smaller soybean-sized Georgia runner-style peanuts are more prolific and best for peanut butter and confections, marble-sized Virginia-style peanuts yield the larger cocktail peanut-sized nut. A&B Milling Co. calls them "the peanut of gourmets." Englewood and other non-profits order their bulk shelled raw peanuts from the wholesaler based in Enfield, North Carolina, which also makes its own version of the fried peanuts, a.k.a. "country-style peanuts," commercially under the Aunt Ruby's brand.
Fried and True
Experienced fryers know there's little margin for error when the recipe calls for only three ingredients: peanuts, peanut oil, and salt. Regional custom dictates boiling batches of shelled peanuts first in water before draining and frying them in peanut oil. Blanching the nuts first encourages them to fry evenly on the inside while the hot oil turns the outsides blistered, crispy, and golden brown. Cooks then salt the nuts liberally while still hot before packing them in screw-top glass jars.
Ninth-generation peanut farmer Richard Anderson farms 1,200 acres of Virginia peanuts, which accounts for about 1% of North Carolina's annual acreage. His family kept a fryer filled with peanut oil in their office to fry up snacks after every fall harvest. "There's nothing any better than that. You can't beat it," he says. "We quit frying them in here because we ate so many in the office that everyone gained five pounds during the harvest season."
In the region known for its cotton, tobacco, pig, and sweet potato production, peanut culture holds its own. "Peanuts mean a lot to us," Anderson says. "It's kind of a fixture around here. It's sustainable and doesn't have the baggage that tobacco has. It's got good nutritional quality. It takes management but it's not an ornery crop to deal with like tobacco can be."
Rooted in South America and Africa
The peanut was originally domesticated in South America before it made its way to West and Central Africa in the 1500s during the transatlantic slave trade, according to Michael W. Twitty, the food writer, historical interpreter, and culinary historian. Once the peanut arrived in North America, "many enslaved Africans grew them in their provision gardens," he wrote for Food & Wine in 2020.
"Called goobers or gooba peas by some, pindars by others, colloquial names for the peanut in the early American South had an Angolan connection, pointing to a fairly early introduction," Twitty wrote. "In time the crop would know crossover appeal; by the 1830s and '40s, there were peanut plantations exporting the snack to the urban North, and by the Civil War, soldiers were singing, "Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas."
Peanuts weren't a ready-to-eat snack food on a national level until the Planters brand figured out how to pack and ship them, Anderson says. Perhaps they were inspired by North Carolina processors who packed roasted peanuts in empty lard tins and shipped them by rail to the minor league baseball stadiums.
Spreading the Good Word About Church Nuts
Word of "church nuts" began to trickle up I-95 from Rocky Mount to New York City in the early aughts when the restaurateurs behind Manhattan barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke were doing research in the area, according to New York magazine. Soon enough, the restaurant began to sell white-label jarred peanuts commissioned from First United Methodist. Marlow and Daughters, a Brooklyn butcher shop in New York City, was another early adopter of Englewood United Methodist nuts; the shop still buys jars by the caseload, as does Cookbook market in Los Angeles.
So who fries the best peanuts? Christian Davenport has worked in the office at Englewood Methodist, taking peanut orders and shipping them for 16 years, and she says there's no rivalry other than with her father-in-law, Don Davenport, who cooks peanuts for the Rocky Mount Shrine Club. Both bring their brands to family gatherings. "I'll bring the best peanuts there are," she says.
Shrine Club Secretary Jerry Tharrington claims otherwise. "We had a taste test. Everybody picked ours over theirs," says Tharrington. "It's an in-house rivalry. We take pride in what we do."
Fried Peanut Tasting Notes and Ordering Info
In this age of convenience when you can smash a button to order any delicacy delivered to your doorstep, you'll need to pick up the phone and talk to an actual human if you want the best peanuts in America shipped to your home. You may even be wished a "blessed day" after placing your order. It's best to buy a case; they will run out quickly after snacking and giving. Or if you're driving in North Carolina, stop by Smith's Red & White in Dortches, a regionally famous grocery that sells the best variety of fried peanuts, including four of the brands below. Be sure to bring a cooler and take home some of their world-class sausage, too.
For entertaining purposes, fried peanuts speak for themselves. Just set them out in a bowl. They're traditionally paired with Coca-Cola, and some old school peanut heads are known to crush up peanuts and put them directly in the mouth of the Coke bottle itself. Cold beer, rum, and bourbon (especially an Old Fashioned), vermouth on the rocks or Prosecco (spritz!) also pair particularly well. Think salty and sweet.
252-443-2926; ($42 for case of twelve 10-oz oz. jars plus shipping)
The OG of church nuts, Englewood United Methodist Church's cook teams perfected the art of frying, salting, and packing peanuts for decades while also sharing the recipe with other outfits, including First United Methodist Church in Mount Olive and the Rocky Mount Shrine Club. (See below.) Their peanuts are always fried to a consistent and evenly cooked golden brown and seasoned with enough sea salt to make them craveable.
919-658-3169 EXT 10 ($3 for a 7-ounce jar in person; $35 plus shipping for a case of twelve 7-oz. jars) or order from Golden Fig ($7.95 for a 7-oz. jar)
Using the same recipe as Englewood Methodist, the FUMC Peanut Crew has been blanching and frying peanuts since 1965. This church nut is decidedly saltier than Englewood's and distinguished by an iconic and simple blue label. These are the peanuts I usually give the Food & Wine staff as a holiday gift. Pro tip: Shake the jar every time before you open it to coat the peanuts with the sea salt that collects on the bottom.
Rocky Mount Shrine Club Old Fashioned Peanuts
252-446-348 ($5.99 for a 10-oz. jar) or order from Smith's Red & White (252) 443-4323
The Shriners tend to fry their peanuts a few seconds longer than Englewood and First United, yielding a darker brown hue and richer flavor. This is the up-and-comer among fundraiser peanuts, and the flavor, texture, and salt level puts it on par with the more established church nut brands. Proceeds go to 22 children's hospitals in North Carolina.
$9.56 for a 20-oz tin
Sold at some Whole Foods in the South in tins labeled "country-style peanuts," Aunt Ruby's makes one of the only commercial varieties of fried peanuts. Unlike the church cooks, who use peanut oil and a deft hand with salting, Aunt Ruby's uses a more neutral flavored corn oil and less salt, and the result tastes like a cross between a fried peanut and a roasted cocktail peanut. They're different than church nuts, but still good. Try their other flavors, especially honey roasted and chocolate peanut clusters.
$13.70 for 10-oz. jar
Cooked in four-pound batches and lightly salted, Bertie County fried peanuts feature the most blistering on the outside of the nut, which makes them supremely crunchy. The company offers an array of flavors, including Old Bay-seasoned peanuts and a ghost pepper variety.